Low energy. Photo by Mitchell Gunn/Getty Images

January 21, 2021   4 mins

Naps are fantastic. Whether it’s a second sleep at 8am after a disrupted night, a power nap after lunch, or a disco nap before a late shift: naps rock.

For a few brief hours this week it seemed the Prime Minister was, like me, a nap fan, catching 40 winks every now and again in his hectic schedule. It was a glorious moment of nap-rebranding. Apparently, this is another way in which our bombastic leader was just like his idol Winston Churchill. Naps aren’t just for babies and toddlers, the message rang out. No, they can be a power tool for leaders, to help them surge through the day from dawn til midnight.

And then someone in Downing Street panicked and a withering denial was issued by the PM’s spokesman. Naps are for wimps, they might as well have said, not for our guy BoJo. What a wasted opportunity to bond with a sleep-deprived nation, where lack of good quality pillow time is costing us £40bn a year.

Sleep is one of the three most important things humans do, along with eating and drinking. Without these three basics, we quite literally can’t do anything. Our bodies stop functioning properly. So why is sleep the only one people eternally boast about doing without?

Yes: there are clean eating and fasting trends, but anyone who goes for less than one proper meal a day is basically considered a kook by mainstream society, in the same bucket as people who steam their vaginas. No one has ever crafted a political narrative about how little they eat: even freakishly thin celebrities usually claim they consume loads and “have a fast metabolism”.

And does anyone ever show off their bravado by claiming they like to get through the day in a state of chronic dehydration? My wisecracking stepfather habitually claims he never drinks water, because fish poo in it. But even he drinks other fluids without a modicum of shame.

But sleep machismo? It’s everywhere. Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trump and Richard Branson have all claimed to need only four hours of sleep. Business “influencers” endlessly exhort us to get up at 5 or even 4am. The latest self-help book phenomenon is the Power Hour which tells us we can get everything we want done if we only get up an hour earlier. Ignoring the fact that what most of us want to do is get an extra hour’s sleep.

Millions of us are chronically sleep deprived. One in three, according to the NHS, putting us at risk of developing obesity, heart disease and diabetes as well being an all round grumpy sod for half the day. Good sleep makes you happier. It improves your sex drive and your fertility. It can help you get slimmer, wards off a range of health conditions, and even helps boost your immunity. Sleep deprivation has been linked to several air disasters, while the risks of dying in surgery far greater if the medic has not had a proper night’s sleep. Since none of us would want our pilot or surgeon to be sleep deprived, why would we praise it in the men and women making life-and-death decisions in government, and whose errors can kill thousands.

Since the pandemic, millions are getting worse sleep. They may have to get up earlier or stay up later to fit work around caring commitments or home schooling. Sleep may be disrupted by the simple anxiety of this hellish year, or by addictive doom scrolling for news on social media sites. Sleep disruption is also one of the cruel symptoms of Long Covid: the enduring illness many coronavirus patients are now reporting — often with no end in sight.

One simple recommendation made by lots of sleep experts is to practise sleep hygiene by keeping your bedroom exclusively for sleeping: but of course you can’t do that if, like for many younger workers, the bed is the only quiet place to work.

So this was a moment for the Prime Minister to shout it loud and proud in favour of good sleep. Yes, damn it, I take a nap sometimes, he should have said, hammering his fist down on the Despatch box.

Was it just machismo that prevented this? Or was it a bigger issue? This after all was a week in which rumours circulated of a desire to deregulate Britain’s workplaces and reduce workers’ rights. If the PM made the case that — sometimes — naps make you better at your job, would he come under pressure to make work more flexible for everyone? So that everyone who’d benefit from the flexibility to juggle their working hours and power up with a bit of shut eye could do so? Of course he would.

He might also have come under pressure from sleep evangelists (well, me, for sure) to make changes to our public health services so the help with sleep is available for every one, especially parents who are struggling. There’s a sound public health case to invest in better sleep for all of us: flexible working schedules; proper advice and support. Perhaps most of all, though, we need an about turn on the anti-nap stigma that sees sleep as a sign of weakness instead of a sign of strength.

Of course, there’s a healthy debate to be had about whether Boris Johnson is a good prime minister. And sure, if he’s just passing out at his desk because he had a kilo of pasta and a bottle of wine for lunch, then questions should be asked. But please, come clean and admit that the spokesperson was wrong to correct the story. The naps happen. They’re a good idea.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.